The New Reform Torah Commentary: Principles

Principles of the Translation

There is a great deal to learn from the many Torah translations in English; and there is much within those texts to appreciate and admire. The daunting task of translation fills one with generosity toward others who have trod the same path—and makes one grateful for their efforts. And so one must ask: Why a new translation? Why do it differently when other excellent versions already exist?

It is our hope that a thoughtful application of the principles will bring to the page the values that are inherent in them. These principles of translation are not presented in order of importance. There is no hierarchy, because the demands of a particular passage will bring one principle or another to the fore; they interact with one another and are sometimes in conflict with one another. Decisions are continually made about which principles should take priority in a given context and which must be set aside for the sake of a good translation. They all matter because they all represent values that we bring to this work.

The translation:

  1. …will be enriched by the many English translations that have preceded this one, and by the insights of traditional Jewish commentators and contemporary scholarship. It will have scholarly integrity, although its primary audience is not the community of scholars.
  2. …will be created with laity and clergy in mind—for their use in worship, group and personal study, and life cycle events.
  3. …will aim to be an English equivalent of the Hebrew text—translating not word for word, but sense for sense, idea for idea.
  4. …will aim to capture the flavor and texture of Biblical Hebrew; at the same time, we strive for a translation that “sings” when read aloud in English, whenever possible, and brings out the beauty of the original.
  5. …will aim to be a source of spiritual inspiration, demonstrating the beauty and complexity of the Torah, and its value in our lives.
  6. …will aim to make the text come alive for readers and students, which may entail the use of creative or challenging language. We hope that new translations of familiar words and expressions will draw attention to them, prompting reflection on their meaning.
  7. …will aim for clarity in conveying meaning, except in cases where it seems that the Hebrew text is intentionally ambiguous. Sometimes the translation will reflect difficulties or ambiguities in the original without trying to smooth them out and make them invisible.
  8. …will incorporate Hebrew words within the English text.
  9. …will use the gender-accurate (as distinct from gender-sensitive) methodology developed for the revision of the Plaut/Bamberger Torah.
  10. …will reflect “inconvenient truths” about the Biblical period and its literature (such as slavery, sexism, hostile relations with non-Israelites, the pervasiveness of violence, and anthropomorphic images of God, as well as God’s rage and violence toward humanity) without apologetic attempts to clean up or tone down the language.
  11. …will, however, make language choices with sensitivity to the diverse community for which we are translating.
  12. …will view Torah with reverence and will also be attuned to comic elements in the text.

Principles of the Commentary

Like all modern Torah commentaries, the new CCAR Torah commentary will include the Hebrew text, an English translation, and a p’shat commentary with explanatory essays written by leading biblical scholars. It will also include contemporary insights on the parashiyot from a range of perspectives. However, there are also ways in which we are expanding the conventional Torah commentary paradigm.

Since its beginnings, Torah has been a multivocal genre. The Torah (and Tanach) include texts and traditions that represent different chronological, geographic, and social locations. The new CCAR Torah commentary will be, at its heart, a pedagogical text that helps its audience become more informed and equipped readers of Torah. We hope that the commentary will give readers some of the information they need to contribute their own interpretive possibilities and perspectives to this vital Jewish conversation. We also hope that this commentary will be a useful tool for rabbis and other teachers of Torah by providing resources and suggesting foci for teaching and reflection.

To achieve these goals, the p’shat commentary will identify and explain elements of the text that have a significant impact on textual interpretation and understanding.

These include:

  1. Linguistic elements, including multiple meanings of words, grammatical and syntactic ambiguities, and/or oddities.
  2. Literary elements, including allusions, literary structure, wordplay, theme words, characterization, etc. These comments will focus on places where the translation reproduces significant elements of the Hebrew text.
  3. Historical information about the compositional context of the text or of the “realia” that it invokes. This includes comments identifying conventional material in the biblical text, so that readers can differentiate between elements that are noteworthy to modern readers and those elements that would have been noteworthy to ancient audiences.
  4. References to both similar and divergent traditions and perspectives elsewhere in Torah and Tanach, embracing differences rather than deciding between them. These comments will help educate readers about the post-biblical uses of the text, as well as invite them to explore the relationship between the likely meaning of the texts in their historical contexts and their later Jewish meanings.

The p’shat commentary will enact an approach to Torah that draws on insights from biblical scholarship and Jewish reception history to help readers become interpreters of the text lishmah. The “sacred reflections” model the ways in which Torah study creates an opportunity to engage with the sacred and support our individual and collective desires to live lives of purpose and meaning. To address these goals, the sacred reflections will:

  1. Model textually grounded readings from throughout the history of Jewish interpretation that engage issues of concern for contemporary readers.
  2. Demonstrate that there are various perspectives on the issues on which we focus, including perspectives that have been historically absent from Torah commentaries.

As we continue to develop content, there will be opportunities for piloting in Reform congregations and other settings, so that we can integrate feedback from our intended audiences into the commentary.

Make your dedication now and be part of this once-in-a-lifetime gift to the Reform Movement.

Return to CCAR New Reform Torah Commentary.